Trump Wants to Increase Defense Spending by $54 Billion. Can He Do It?

We learned today that President Trump wants to increase defense spending by $54 billion. How much is that, anyway?

This is tricky. Normally, you’d just take a look at defense spending over the past decade or so and see how it compares to the trend. However, ever since 9/11, a big chunk of defense spending has been for “Overseas Contingency Operations,” known to the rest of us as “wars.” You don’t want to count that as part of the baseline. On the other hand, the OCO account sometimes acts as a sort of slush fund for ordinary spending, which basically hides increases in baseline defense expenditures.

With that caveat in mind, here is baseline defense spending since 2001:1

There are two ways you can look at this:

  • All this is doing is getting defense spending back up to its Obama-era levels prior to the sequester.
  • Yikes! That’s a 45 percent increase since 2001.

Do we really need to be spending 45 percent more than we did in 2001 for baseline defense? Remember, if we decide to invade Iraq and take their oil, that would get funded separately. The baseline budget is just to support basic military readiness.

I guess we can all make up our own minds about this, though I can’t say that I’ve heard any persuasive arguments that the Pentagon is truly suffering too much with a $550 billion budget. The real question is whether Trump’s $54 billion increase can get through Congress. Normally, Republicans would pass it via reconciliation and they wouldn’t need any Democratic votes. However, this increase would blow past the sequester limits put in place in 2013, and this can only be done via regular order.2 That means Republicans need at least eight Democratic votes in the Senate to overcome a filibuster.

Normally, they could probably get that. But if they try to balance this $54 billion increase with a $54 billion cut to the EPA and safety net programs, there are very few Democrats who will play ball. So what’s the plan here?

1Historical budget authority here. OCO levels here. I adjusted for inflation using the GDP deflator. This seemed more appropriate than consumer inflation measures like CPI and PCE, but it doesn’t actually make much difference. They all show pretty similar inflation levels over a short period like this.

2Though I admit I can’t find an authoritative confirmation of this. I think that any spending above the sequestration levels can be filibustered, but I’d appreciate confirmation from someone knowledgeable about this. The sequester applies only to discretionary spending, and it’s possible that Republicans can add $54 billion to defense if they slash $54 billion from mandatory spending elsewhere.

UPDATE: OK, Stan Collender confirms that spending above the sequester caps can filibustered. If Stan says it’s true, then it’s true. He goes on to say that the only options for Republicans are (a) to put the increase in the OCO fund, or (b) to authorize the spending, trigger the sequester, and then for Trump to ignore the sequester. They’re both illegal, but it’s hard to tell if anyone cares these days.